With crime increasing as the East Bay's largest city slowly slides toward insolvency, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan has buried her head in the sand, the City Council president is neck-deep, and some council members are completely engulfed.
For years now, we've been warning of Oakland living beyond its means. But the city's elected leaders don't seem to get it. Quan ran for office in 2010 touting her supposed budget expertise from years on the City Council. She promised to develop a road map for fiscal sustainability. Yet, after 2½ years in office, she has yet to deliver.
As the mayor shows in her proposed two-year budget, which the City Council will consider this week, she remains unwilling to make necessary tough decisions. The council's response demonstrates that it also refuses to face reality.
The Quan administration forecasts that the general fund will have a $128 million annual deficit by 2017-18, with only about 79 percent of needed revenues. Worse, that projection assumes only tiny steps toward restoring the police department's sworn staff, cut by about 23 percent over the past six years, to acceptable levels. And it doesn't address the $2 billion debt (about $13,000 per household) for unfunded liabilities of city employee retirement programs.
Fighting crime and setting the city on a path to fiscal stability must be the top priorities. They are intertwined. Unchecked violence will drive away revenue-producing businesses and residents. Future financial instability will undermine restoration of police services. It's a potential death spiral the city must avoid.
To be sure, there's much more to city services than police, and reducing crime requires more than just putting additional cops on the beat. But without an adequate force, everything else crumbles.
Sadly, Quan's proposed budget is more of the same, with marginal trims. In a telling indicator of her warped priorities, the mayor would add a high-paid position in her office for a political crony while continuing to leave the city's budget office badly understaffed.
City Council President Pat Kernighan's alternative budget plan would restore some programs and cuts others, but essentially end up in the same place, failing to address the big picture.
Meanwhile, council members Desley Brooks, Noel Gallo and Larry Reid are living in a parallel reality, seemingly unaware of the severity of the situation. Their budget proposal uses fanciful revenue numbers, undermines funding for training new police officers and includes unaffordable salary increases for other employees.
For the sake of the city and its residents, let's hope Oakland officials finally look up and see the threat ahead rather than just wishing it will magically go away. It won't.